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Is Washington losing Turkey?

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It seems that the relations between Washington and Ankara have only been poor in recent times.

There are a lot of unresolved issues and disputes, which intermittently cause crises, between the two countries.

The reason for the last negative turn of events was the arrest of Andrew Brunson, an evangelical Presbyterian pastor who worked in Turkey’s Aegean region. In fact, the pastor was arrested in October 2016, as part of an investigation into the coup attempt that took place in July 2016. The Turkish authorities accuse the pastor of having links with the Gulen Movement, which was declared a terrorist organization in Turkey. The president of the United States, Donald Trump, has dedicated several tweets to Brunson, in which he expressed confidence in his innocence and called for his immediate release.

Some observers believe that the Turkish side would like to swap the pastor for the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, who has been living for many years in exile in the US. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, commenting on the situation around Andrew Brunson, mentioned the Turkish preacher accused of orchestrating an attempted military coup in Turkey and lamented that the US refused to extradite him to Turkey.

In late July, Brunson was moved to house arrest, due to health problems.

Despite the request of the American side, Turkey refused to release the pastor eventually. Although there had been cases of detention of French and German citizens on similar charges, they were released after the intervention of their countries.Obviously, Trump, known for his impulsiveness, was not pleased with this approach of the Turkish authorities. He repeatedly threatened to impose sanctions. Perhaps even Trump imposing sanctions on Turkey expects to receive an apology from the Turkish leader, as in the case with Putin after the Turkish fighters shot down a Russian military plane that violated Turkish airspace. Finally, at the beginning of this month, the US Treasury Department adopted personal sanctions against the two Turkish ministers, it was an extraordinary measure, not every day the US imposes sanctions against members of the government of one of the NATO countries.

This was followed by a sharp increase in duties on imports of Turkish steel and aluminum, later, on August 10.

This step was a severe blow for the Turkish economy and the Turkish national currency which were far from their glory days. The Turkish lira went into free fall. The Turkish government is trying to stabilize the lira, but Erdogan’s public speeches are increasingly contributing to the depreciation of the lira.

Following these events, the Turkish police put in place additional security measures around the house of Andrew Brunson in Izmir.

Some people think it is justified that Erdogan uses this situation to rally the divided Turkish society around him. The Turkish society still has a memory of how the Western powers used Christian missionaries to interfere in the internal affairs of the Ottoman Empire. I do not think that the case of Andrew Brunson has any correlation with what happened in the times of the Ottoman Empire, but propaganda skillfully completes the missing parts of stories …

Immediately after the escalation of the crisis, President Erdogan published an article in the NYT.This shows that he realizes the importance of the US, American public opinion and is ready for dialogue. I would advise him to write his column in the NYT on a regular basis, so the American audience will have the opportunity to learn first-hand about Turkey’s position. It should also be noted that Erdogan’s government has a severe problem in building communications with the American political establishment. After Erdogan came to power, the few Turkish lobby groups that were in the US suspended their activities, Erdogan’s government was unable to build its lobbying activities in the US, unlike, for example, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel or even China. The lack of such activities widened the gap between Ankara and Washington.

As for the economy, it would be wrong to say that the US was responsible for all the economic problems in Turkey, as announced by the White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett live on MSNBC. Hassett said President Donald Trump’s decision to double tariffs on Turkish steel was “a tiny, tiny fraction” of Turkey’s gross domestic product, “so for the currency to drop 40 percent is a sign that there are a lot of economic fundamentals that are out of whack in that country.” He also added a remark on the political processes in Turkey and their impact on the economy. “When a country loses its connection to liberal democracy then you don’t really know what’s going to happen next to the economy and I think there is a lot of uncertainty,” Hassett said. The Turkish economy has been going through really tough times for the last 5-6 years. Large foreign investors are skeptical about Turkey’s investment opportunities; this is due to the following factors:

* Economic and political instability in the country.

* Strong outflow of capital and a drop in the purchasing power of citizens.

* Confrontation of the government with disagreeable businesspersons and use of courts for their prosecution and confiscation of assets.

* Complete loss of independence of Turkish courts and falling under the control of the executive power.

* Permanent Islamization of the country and a gradual moving away from the secular state.

For a long time, Erdogan’s government was on good terms with the Gulen Movement, the business empire controlled by this religious sect has grown considerably, members of the sect managed to infiltrate the courts and the prosecutor’s office. The Gulen Movement used these opportunities not only against Kemalist politicians and public figures but also against businesspersons whom they disapproved. When Erdogan started destroying the business empire of the Gulen Movement, this certainly could not but affect the Turkish economy.

Moreover, many wealthy people in Turkey have recently sold and are selling their property in the country and move to other countries, and these contribute to the outflow of capital from the country. Some local businessmen who are close to the authorities acquire these assets and attract foreign loans in dollars and euros for this, these transactions, along with the current debts of Turkish corporations, increase the pressure on the foreign exchange market. The growing Turkish foreign debt and its servicing become an expensive pleasure every year.

It is difficult to predict how this crisis will develop and whether it will lead to greater problems for both countries. Especially since the reins are held by impulsive leaders in both countries.

However, it is worth noting that the problems in the relations between the two countries should not be linked to Trump, he inherited these problems from the previous administration. Besides, as early as 2003, some serious disagreements emerged between Turkey and the US, when Turkey refused to participate in the Iraq campaign and refused to let US troops through its territory. In the short term, Turkey was able to show itself as an “independent player” in the long term, it was a blow to Turkey’s interests in Iraq, particularly, in Northern Iraq.

The parties have serious complaints against each other. I will try to touch upon these issues briefly.

Syria – PYD / YPG

Some politicians in Washington believe that only the US can have “national interests”, other countries cannot have any. This approach primarily harms the US itself and plays into the hands of Iran, Russia and, to some extent, China.

Turkey accuses US-backed Kurdish paramilitary groups PYD / YPG of being affiliated with PKK. The US spent vast amounts of money on training, preparing, arming and supporting the Kurdish armed groups in the north of Syria. Millions of dollars of American taxpayers were spent on supporting armed groups that fight the US ally in the region and are affiliated with the PKK terrorist organization that the US itself put on the terrorist list in 1997.It is worth noting that this process did not begin under the current administration but under the Obama administration. This can be considered as one of a series of mistakes by the Obama administration in the Middle East, which later led to an increase in the influence of Russia and Iran in this region.

The fact that Germany, which supported the Kurdish groups, was late and could not take part in the division of spheres of influence in the region is understandable, but the US is a world superpower and has an ally in the region closely linked to Washington in military terms. For the long-term interests of the US in the region, it is merely disadvantageous to exchange the NATO country with the second largest army after the US for the paramilitary Kurdish groups affiliated with terrorists.

Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made S-400 systems and problems with the F-35

Turkey as a broad enough country in a complex region continually needs to update and improve its air defense. Turkey’s attempt to buy Russian S-400 missile defense systems turned into a scandal. The US is unhappy that a NATO country is buying Russian weapons. However, this deal has an interesting background. Before considering the purchase of S-400 missile defense systems as an option, Turkey had long tried to buy similar weapons from NATO allies, but no one agreed to sell…As the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in his interview, Turkey had been trying to buy similar weapons from the US for almost ten years, but the US refused Turkey.

It is strange that another NATO member Greece has Russian weapons, particularly, the S-300 missile defense system. However, this does not cause a sharp discontent of NATO or the US. If the US believes that the purchase of S-400 missile defense systems is a problem, then Turkey is not to blame. The consistent disregard by Turkey’s allies for its need for such weapons pushed Turkey to look for an alternative.After the deal between Russia and Turkey was concluded, the US agreed to discuss the sale of Patriots to Turkey, but in exchange asked Ankara to cancel the S-400 deal. The Turkish side stated that they did not exclude the purchase of the Patriot defense systems, but they would not cancel the deal with Russia.

On August 13, the US President Donald Trump signed into law a defense policy bill that will hold up the transfer to Turkey of 100 F-35 fighter jets. Despite the fact that Turkey had paid for them. It seems that this step will further aggravate the crisis between the countries and will further push Turkey towards Russia and China.

Assistance to Iran in evading US sanctions

This, probably, is one of the most severe claims of Washington against Ankara. According to the American side, this is a whole chain of “backdoors” created by large Turkish banks in order to bypass the financial sanctions imposed on Iran.

The essence of the claim is that Turkish state banks took an active part in laundering Iranian money received from oil trade and sending cash and gold to Iran. The entire scheme was coordinated by an Iranian businessman of Azerbaijani descent, Reza Zarrab, who was married to a well-known Turkish singer.Zarrab is now appearing as a prosecution witness and claims that the current president of Turkey was aware of this scheme. This is quite a serious charge. Zarrab also claims that he paid tens of millions of dollars in bribes to the Turkish minister and other high-ranking officials for their help. It is suggested that through the scheme organized by Zarrab a couple of Turkish banks passed 100 billion dollars from Iran. It is strange that there was a loophole in the sanctions system for a while and, although the Obama administration knew about it, they were reluctant to close this secret passage. The investigation into this case is still ongoing in the US. In May 2018, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a deputy general manager of “Halk Bank” who was involved in this scheme, was sentenced by an American court to 32 months of imprisonment.

This episode also exacerbates the relations between the US and Turkey as allies.

Refusal to purchase Iranian energy resources and new sanctions against Iran

After the US imposed new sanctions on Iran and asked the countries importing Iranian oil and gas to refuse these purchases, the Turkish authorities said they would not follow these sanctions and would not stop importing Iranian oil and gas. We were witnessing a repetition of the events of 2003 when Turkey refused to become a part of the coalition against Iraq. Now Ankara is stepping on the same rake. Defending Iran, Turkey deprives itself of the right to vote in the future, when the winners will share the “Iranian inheritance.” Iran has never been an ally or even a good neighbor of Turkey, Iranian propaganda has actively opposed Turkey, Iran has almost never helped Turkey to fight PKK terrorists, Iran and Turkey found themselves on opposite sides of the barricade in Syria. Now Turkey has a unique chance to use the issue of sanctions against Iran to solve problems with the US and to exert pressure on Iran to limit its destructive activity in the region.

In the coming months, we will learn how the Turkish-American relations will move forward. I would like to believe that both sides will have the wisdom and patience to step back a little and try to agree. So far, the actions of both sides have played into the hands of exclusively Iran and Russia, putting the stability of the whole region at risk.

Middle East

China-US and the Iran nuclear deal

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian that Beijing would firmly support a resumption of negotiations on a nuclear pact [China Media Group-CCTV via Reuters]

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with  Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province.  Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.

A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for  strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.

During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.

The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said

‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’

The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.

During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.

The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC,  Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.

In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.

Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.

The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.

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Middle East

Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?

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Image source: atalayar.com

“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!

The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force! 

Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.

The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.

Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.   

The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.

The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.

The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.

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Middle East

Kurdish Education in Turkey: A Joint Responsibility

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Turkish elites often see Kurds as posing a mortal threat to their homeland’s territorial integrity. Kurdish elites often harbor pan-Kurdish dreams of their own.

Modern Turkish nationalism based its identity on statist secularism practiced by Muslims who are Turks. The secularist paradigm of a “Turkish Nation” struggled hard with accommodating Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and Kurdish-speaking Muslims. Kurdish coreligionists were expected to become Turks, i.e., to abandon their cultural heritage for the “greater good” of a homogenous Turkish nation.

This cultural-identity conundrum led to a century-long violent conflict, but also to genuine efforts by many Kurds and Turks to reach a common vision that would accommodate both Turkey’s territorial integrity and Kurdish cultural rights.

The rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 appeared to imply a watershed, bringing about a measure of cultural liberalization toward the Kurds. More Islam seemed at first to signal less nationalistic chauvinism.

IMPACT-se, a think tank focusing on peace and tolerance in school education, pointed out in “Two Languages One Country,” a 2019 report that showed liberal elements being introduced in the Turkish curriculum by the AKP government. These “included the introduction of a Kurdish language elective program, the teaching of evolution, expressions of cultural openness, and displays of tolerance toward minorities.”

And while no open debate was permitted, IMPACT-se noted “a slight improvement over past textbooks in recognizing the Kurds, although they are still generally ignored.” Yet, the name “Kurd” is no longer obliterated from the curriculum. Kurdish-language textbooks were authored as part of a wider Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.

In June 2012, the Turkish government announced for the first time, that a Kurdish elective language course entitled: “Living Languages and Dialects” (Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler), would be offered as an elective language for Grades 5–7 for two hours per week.

IMPACT-se studied these textbooks (published in 2014 and 2015 in Kurmanji and Zazaki) in its report  and found that the elective Kurdish-language program strengthens Kurdish culture and identity, while assuming a pan-Kurdish worldview devoid of hate against Turks. Included are Kurdish-historic places in Turkey, Iran and Iraq (but not Syria). The textbooks cover issues such as the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz, with the underlying revolutionary message of uprising against tyranny. Children’s names are exclusively Kurdish. Turks and Turkey are not represented in the elective Kurdish books (but are obviously present across the rest of the curriculum).

The latter is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. Textbooks published by Turkey’s Ministry of Education focus solely on the Kurdish side, with pan-Kurdish messaging, and no Turkish context. There could be several explanations for this, but the fact remains that Turkish-Kurdish relations are still not present in Turkey’s Kurdish language program.

The overall conclusion of IMPACT-se has been that this program is pioneering and generally excellent. There are some problems, however. One problem is that the elective program is minimalistic and does not meet Kurdish cultural needs. However, the program ignores the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma, hence projecting an inverted mirror image of the Turkish curriculum at large, which ignores the Kurdish question. There is no peace education in either curriculum. Therefore, IMPACT-se recommended enhancing the Kurdish-language program, while adding a healthy dose of pertinent peace education to the curriculum’s Turkish and Kurdish textbooks.

Sadly, the last few years have also seen broader moves by the Turkish government to quash Kurdish cultural and educational freedoms. The armed conflict between separatist groups and the Turkish military resumed in 2015, followed by the 2016 detention of high-ranking officials of the peaceful pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). By 2020, 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors on the HDP ticket in previous years had been forced out or arrested by security forces.

Simultaneously, elective programs such as Kurdish have been neglected and largely replaced by religious “elective” courses, which are often mandatory. Specifically, elective Kurdish courses are being clamped down or de facto erased in certain schools (despite being originally offered in 28 cities and with an expected enrollment as high as 160,000).

And then there is the question of full education in Kurdish. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution bans the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education.” And yet, Turkish authorities looked the other way between 2013 and 2016, as five fully Kurdish elementary private schools were opened in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak and Hakkari. The last of these schools, Ferzad Kemanger in Diyarbakır, was closed on October 9, 2016. Apparently these schools conveyed pan-Kurdish messaging (Ferzad Kemanger was an Iranian-Kurdish elementary school teacher. He was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and executed by Tehran in 2010).

There can be no Kurdish heritage without Kurdish languages, making the current situation untenable. Kurdish education should become a priority again.

But this is not enough. A common Turkish-Kurdish vision should be developed. Educationally, a serious effort should be directed toward educating both Turks and Kurds about the other’s identity, culture, shared history, commonalties, conflicts and interactions. 

Two ethnicities sharing one homeland in a volatile region pose a great challenge for both. A careful educational plan can lay the groundwork for peace and prosperity. Kurdish education in Turkey should be considered a joint responsibility leading to a common vision.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of IMPACT-se.

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